LONG BEACH — Jeff Ostby sat in the sand, a cigarette in his mouth and a softball in his hand. He looked up at his teammate, Dennis Carlson, who dug in and cocked his bat. In the hazy distance, a woman and two men were poised in barefoot defense.
"Go," said Carlson, and Ostby tossed up the ball and leaned back. Carlson swung and hit a line drive where you are supposed to in this game:
"Over the line."
The line, really a rope stretched across the sand, was 55 feet from "home." Also 55 feet long, it connected with the foul lines to form a triangle.
Carlson, 30, a restaurant supply salesman from Long Beach, stuck his bat in the sand and knelt to "pitch" to Ostby, next up on the three-member co-ed team called the Ho Dads. Ostby golfed one deep toward an unguarded area of the corridor between the foul lines. But the ball carried too far and landed wide of the right boundary. An out.
"I had Death Valley out there and I blew it," said Ostby, a 33-year-old mailman from Newport Beach.
The next batter was Rose Johnson, a pharmacy technician in her mid-30s who wore a batting glove on her left hand. She grounded the ball in the dreaded triangle. An out.
Carlson got another hit. But Ostby's liner was snagged and the Ho Dads were scoreless in the first inning of last Sunday afternoon's semifinal game of the Southern California Co-ed Over-the-Line Softball Classic.
Ostby went out to play defense against the Must I Really Play? team and wondered if he had drunk too many beers earlier in the day.
Could it be that Over-the-Line, infamous for teams with obscene names, is cleaning up its image? At Sunday's tournament in Belmont Shore, a bulletin board identified the teams with names familiar in bowling alleys: Jokers, Strangers on the Shore, Where's Kim?, Good Ol' Boys and Jim, Foxes, Bootleggers and Power Loungers. In keeping with the tradition, though, the Virgin Killers were also entered.
Russ Johnson, blond, 34 and a former lifeguard, was in charge. Rose Johnson's brother and a junior high school teacher who lives in Paramount, he has been running these beach tournaments for 10 years. He said there are 1,500 OTL teams in the area that stretches from Los Angeles to Long Beach to Huntington Beach.
There is a less-popular grass version of the game. "How many girls are wearing bikinis on the grass?" Ostby explained.
Some OTL rules: Any ball landing in the triangle is an out. A swing and a miss is an out. A ball landing uncaught over the line is a hit. Three hits score a run. A ball landing past the feet of the last defender is a home run. There are only singles and home runs. There are no bases. Games last five innings.
Over-the-Line, which draws thousands of players to an annual summer world tournament in San Diego, was once described by a devotee as a "bawdy, brash festival of flesh and suspended sobriety," but that was not the case Sunday.
"This is family oriented," Russ Johnson said.
By 9 a.m., coolers and lawn chairs had been deposited near the courts. Suntan lotion and Wheat Thins shared a blanket. A radio blared the Beatles but would later be switched to the Lakers-Celtics game.
Before noon, the sun revealed itself and turned a gray sky blue. It also threatened the milky legs of Bob Walker, 54, of Inglewood, who churned far and wide to make barehanded catches. (Only the women were allowed to wear fielder's gloves.)
Walker explained his attraction for the game: "I enjoy meeting people and not watching TV."
But his real reason, obviously, was the thrill he got from making those catches and then being praised by much-younger players.
The Ho Dads, like the other teams, wore no uniforms. The unshaven Ostby wore shorts, T-shirt and golf cap. Carlson had on green sweat pants and an orange cap. Rose Johnson wore blue shorts over a one-piece bathing suit.
They fell behind early against Must I Really Play? but with Ostby deciding to cool the beer for a while, came back.
A beach umbrella flapped in the cold wind that came from the ocean, which, in the flat perspective provided by the wide beach, seemed a remote, dark strip between sand and horizon. The players seemed isolated, as on a desert.
Carlson, last year's OTL Player of the Year, made a rare out. "It looks so easy, but you miss by this much and you're in the triangle," he said, holding two fingers an inch apart.
Rose Johnson, whose yellow hair had long since blown out of its '60s-style bubble, lined out to her counterpart. "Damn her," said Johnson, her brief hot streak stopped.
Check the Parking Meter
The Ho Dads trailed, 8-7, with one out in the 5th and needed a hit to tie. Johnson told her daughter to check the parking meter, then grabbed a bat.
"Come on, Rose, over the line. If they catch it, they catch it," encouraged Ostby.
But Johnson popped weakly in front of the line and blamed it on a sore left elbow.
Carlson and Ostby kept hitting, though, and the game, 9-9, went into an extra inning. The Ho Dads failed to score and had to troop back to the outfield, where they resembled three lost wanderers in a Sahara sandstorm. Ostby dropped a high fly, an error that led to the winning run, scored on a drive by Frank Benarth.
"We went out flat and let 'em have it," Carlson said. "It's a humbling game." Still, he smiled.
But not too far from a sign that read, "It's only a game," Ostby savagely attacked an ice chest with his bat.